My mom cleaned out some bookshelves the other day—the horror. She sent me a list of potential jettisons, just in case, and THANK GOD, because in addition to Anastasia Krupnik (taking this to my grave) and and The Aeneid, Book VI (ditto, since it’s only thematically appropriate), she was going to give away The D’Aulaires Book of Greek Myths.
I got this book from my fifth-grade teacher. I didn’t know it, but it contained my life’s mission.
Of course, I had no idea at the time. I was just a weird girl with a bad haircut who who still liked dressing up in her queen costume instead of getting ZAPPED. (Getting ZAPPED was a short-lived trend among my more preternatural classmates that involved writing a time of day on the back of the hand and the name of a member of the opposite sex on the palm. Flip it over before your time is up and you’d have to ask them out. Out where? Nobody knew.) We were assigned to read one story one morning per week and look up and define certain words therein in a notebook. For the first time, I had a planner: different subjects blocked out, assignments (plural) to juggle. I cried a lot (in class and out. I was a stressed-out kid.) But I loved to read.
Myths are funny things. They’re kind of like words—it’s hard to think back to a time before you knew them, like they’ve always existed in your Campbell-meets-Jung mental miasma. But there was a time, specific Monday mornings of my 10th and 11th year, when I was turning the pages fresh. I didn’t know that Athena was going to pop out of Zeus’s head or that Atalanta was fast or that Aphrodite was going to wash up on shore like a plastic, dolphin-killing six-pack holder. I also, for obvious reasons, did not learn the extent of (or even the meaning of) philandering in Greek myths, though I did get to unlock other new and arcane-sounding words: aphrodisiac, athenaeum, cairn, even cereal. Fourth and fifth grade were like a secular age of reason; I was ready to learn and everything I learned stuck. The Middle Ages, the Greeks, and how to write a check (Mrs. Hineline was comprehensive). And every Monday, more stories.
The year waned, middle school loomed, and I ran out of book. No more colored-pencil D’Aulaire illustrations and no more myths. There can only be so many, after all. The book’s ending made me sad—not how the stories terminated, but that they had to stop, period.
The Trojan War happened. The last story was about Aeneas escaping. Right-side pages were getting thin. But when I turned the last one over, there they were again, all the Gods on little name-tagged clouds: Zeus/Jupiter, Hera/Juno, Athena/Minerva.
I remember the feeling so clearly: it didn’t have to end. There could be more. I don’t think I’ve felt so powerful an emotion reading, before or since. It was wonderful. From then on, my destiny was written—not in the sense that it was predetermined, but that it consisted of things written down. Scripta manent.
But that was it, for then. I didn’t know. Later, there would be French, and Latin, to layer one understanding of stories on another, and then history, and then college, and then writing, and then back to my old house and my old book where I’d refind the stories I’d traced in endless iterations.
Look; they’re all still there.
Having a life mission sounds quaint, self-important, and dramatically dire by turns. But if I have one—and I think I need one—this is it. That turning-the-page feeling. It’s a kind of quod est demonstrandum—what IS to be done—which is just a present refreshment of what was, once, to be done (QED, as it were). In other words, the same thing as other people have done. The same stories they’ve told, but in other words. The form of QED is an impersonal imperative, a form that English lacks. The idea that something can be universally necessary—it’s very Latinate, I think, and very wonderful. Or I wonder about it, anyway—what it means for everyone and what it means for me. What is to be done, in the face of so much time, so many stories? Participate. I want to take things from one place to another, because that’s what stories do. Translato studii: the translation of knowledge. Tell and re-tell. One day it will be pleasing to remember even this.
Keep your books. Keep your word. Keep going.